Snuffed Out: Cannibal Holocaust & the Rise of the Video Nasty

Ruggero Deodato’s infamous found footage innovator may have lost some of its allure, but if you’re anything like me you won’t be revisiting it in a hurry


When it comes to certain films, you’ve all heard the expression, “once is enough”. Chances are you’ve uttered that exact response many times over. But rarely do we resist a second look at movies that so aggressively test our boundaries, however uncomfortable the experience. Something that has such a profound effect on your sensibilities will always be lurking somewhere, scratching away at the banished corners of your memory banks like a malformed monster itching to be confronted. Also, time is a great healer. When I first witnessed Darren Aronofsky’s devastating depiction of spiralling drug abuse Requiem for a Dream, I breathlessly made that very proclamation. As engaging as the movie was, packed with massive performances, blessed with stylistic prowess and bleeding Hubert Selby Jr. authenticity, it cut way too close to the bone, particularly the delirious self-destruction of Ellen Burstyn’s amphetamine-laced widow, Sara Goldfarb, which haunted me for months thereafter. It was a powerful, essential experience, but one you could quickly overdose on. Over a twenty-year period I’ve seen the movie a total of four times. It will be a good while before I make it five. But I will get there. Eventually.

The late Ruggero Deodato’s exploitation-riddled mocumentary Cannibal Holocaust would have been the exception had I not been forced to revisit for the purposes of this article. Even the similarly devastating British apocalyptic drama Threads, released at the height of 80s Cold War tensions, will be voluntarily revisited at some point, even if, in the seven years since I experienced it, I haven’t plucked up the courage, or even come close. Cannibal Holocaust doesn’t match up in terms of pure, devastating realism, mainly because the premise isn’t something that’s instantly relatable. The perils of drug addiction and all-out nuclear destruction are well within the boundaries of reality, are issues that could affect us all at any given time, but it’s unlikely we’ll end up on the trail of a cannibalistic tribe in the wilderness, even if, by today’s estimates, there are still at least 20 indigenous cannibal tribes existing in the Amazon. Today, their diets are considered harmless to humans. Ironically, ‘outsiders’ are actually more harmless to tribespeople in the 21st century, the effect of oil and gas companies threatening to make them extinct along with half the planet. Today, it’s clear to see who the real monsters are.

Cannibal Holocaust can be a real slog at times, even for the most hardcore exploitation fan. Part of this can be attributed to its disparate structure and the fact that viewers are no longer wowed by the found footage style that was brand new back in 1980, but stripped of its once anarchic and very believable extremities, the film meanders for long stretches, its infamy somewhat diluted years after the New French Extremity wave of horror brought us such cringeworthy efforts as Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, breathless movies that revile and entertain in equal measures. Conversely, You’d be hard-pressed to describe Cannibal Holocaust as entertainment. It is, however, a priceless artefact in the annals of horror history, a vital point of reference that typifies an era of unbridled censorship that set out to strip society of certain civil liberties in the name of ideological conservatism. So ahead of its time was Deodato’s ruthless punt at infamy that it was banished outright, contributing to the the whole ‘Video Nasty’ saga in the United Kingdom. Many indie filmmakers saw their works ostracised from the realms of perceived decency, but none as aggressively as Cannibal Holocaust.

Like the Death Wish series, Cannibal Holocaust reeks of hypocrisy, revelling in the very violence that it claims to condemn. As well as realistic depictions of mutilation and cannibalism, including the severing of a man’s genitals, the film features real acts of animal cruelty, the kind that was notoriously extended to the film’s cast. Much like Michael Powell’s equally controversial Peeping Tom, it uncovers uncomfortable truths about the role of the filmmaker, only Cannibal Holocaust bleeds into the realms of reality, becoming more than mere fictional deconstruction. On the intrusive power of Powell’s Peeping Tom, advocate Martin Scorsese, who was vital to the film’s rediscovery after screening a print at the 1979 New York Film Fetival, would say, “Peeping Tom is a frightening experience. It’s also a thrilling one. Because it gets close to the heart of the impulse deep within filmmaking. To make films, to make images, and stories from those images, other imagined worlds, it’s exciting, it’s intoxicating, which means that can get a grip on you. And unless you’re very careful it won’t let you go… Powell dared what no one else had dared before him, to show us how close moviemaking can come to madness.” In Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato comes closer still.

I wonder who the real cannibals are.

Professor Harold Monroe

One of the sub-genre’s to crawl out of the Video Nasty sewer was the long-fabled snuff film. In Cannibal Holocaust, animals, up to and including primates, are murdered and mutilated in graphic detail. A total of seven animals were killed for the sake of the production, six of which captured for the screen. A coati (mistaken for a muskrat in the film), was killed with a knife. An Arrau turtle was decapitated, its limbs, shell and entrails removed. A tarantula and a boa constrictor were both killed with a machete. A pig was shot in the head with a .22 calibre rifle at point blank range. And, most shockingly, two squirrel monkeys were decapitated with a machete, the act repeated for multiple shots. Both of which were eaten by indigenous cast members, who consider monkey brains a delicacy. It’s about as close to an orchestrated snuff production as you are ever likely to find that doesn’t use existing footage.

There’s an underlying perversity to the way those acts are captured too, the kind that recalls Peeping Tom‘s deeply troubled antagonist Mark Lewis, a peculiar introvert, obsessed with the camera’s gaze, who comes alive during explicit acts of murder, capturing his victims in the POV crosshairs of a viewfinder that doubles as a deadly weapon. Despite what many, including the law, had assumed at the time, no human being is harmed in Cannibal Holocaust, but it proves a much uglier experience than Powell’s suggestive masterclass. Watching the camera zoom in and capture acts of animal cruelty in such explicit detail speaks to the lurid obsession of Mark Lewis, only this is real, much realer than most will ever be ready for. If you find even a shred of enjoyment in those scenes you might want to seek psychiatric help before it’s too late.

It doesn’t end there. The tale of a New York anthropologist who ventures into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in search of a missing crew, only to be confronted by a cannibal tribe in the Amazon, Cannibal Holocaust was a testing experience for all involved. Much like Tobe Hooper, who was alienated by cast members on the shoot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre after subjecting them to inhumane conditions in the name of creative aspiration, Dedodato was labelled a sadist by cast and crew members forced into deeply uncomfortable simulations of rape and murder. Asides from his animal-related discrepancies, native extras were unpaid and subjected to highly dangerous situations during what became an arduous shoot plagued by horrible conditions and outrageously immoral requests, leading actor Robert Kerman to claim, “[Deodato] was a sadist. He was particularly sadistic to people that couldn’t answer back, people that were Colombian, [and] people that were Italian but could be sent home.” Some may admire Deodato’s dedication to creating what is undoubtedly one of the most affecting and effective movies of any generation with its creative sense of realism and startling imagery, but in today’s hypersensitive climate he would have been drawn, quartered and then some.

Ironically, it was the fictional side of things that almost led to the guillotine being unceremoniously rolled out, particularly one of the most distressing images in all of cinema, an image that still looks strikingly authentic almost half a century on. Even those who are yet to see Cannibal Holocaust may be familiar with the horrific visual of human impalement that would embody the movie’s audacious brand of practical effects sorcery, which was tantamount to witchcraft at the turn of the 80s. No stranger to the cannibal boom of the late 1970s, another sub-genre that he was instrumental to, Deodato’s striking visual style was constructed with infamy in mind, and the sight a female tribe member impaled through the anus and out through the mouth may be the most staggering of all, even in a movie that dishes out actual internal organs like a banquet thrown by Caligula and catered to the psychotic whims of Ivan the Terrible, Albert Fish and Jeffrey Dahmer.

The nature of the movie’s fictional crew only adds to the sense of sadism, something that was inevitably projected onto Deodato himself. Deodato and cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi, who give the movie an unnerving verisimilitude that was rare in bargain-basement exploitation flicks, blur uncomfortable boundaries in the Peeping Tom mode, presenting events with an unnerving banality and revealing a duplicitous mean that threatens to transcend the traditional relationship between filmmaker and audience. Beset on a sick, sensationalist piece that portrays the movie’s fictional (and real life) tribespeople as subhuman while inflicting untold horrors upon their community, the film’s fictional crew are sinister and unlikable from the off, but the unedited found footage reveals even more uncomfortable truths, suggesting that much of what was captured was done for the sheer, sadistic thrill of it. Whatever you think of Cannibal Holocaust, it’s an ingenious blurring of the lines that takes you out of your fictional comfort zone and unmasks the filmmaker, resulting in a level of disrepute beyond even Deodato’s wildest dreams.

After its Milan premiere, Cannibal Holocaust was immediately confiscated by local magistrates, Deodato arrested and charged with obscenity, and that was just the beginning of a highly publicised ordeal similar to that of a captured serial killer. So convincing were the movie’s depictions of murder that French magazine Photo claimed certain deaths were in fact real, insinuating that Deodato had actually taken the lives of cast members for the sake of a $100,000 movie. Charges were quickly amended to include actual murder, a fact made even more problematic thanks to a contractual clause that prevented the film’s stars from appearing in media interviews, motion pictures or commercials for a year after the film’s release, a move designed to heighten the movie’s sense of authenticity. Deodato was eventually cleared of those charges, but only after the film’s fictional crew were brought in for interviews. An explanation for the impalement scene was also given (a bicycle seat was attached to the end of an iron pole, upon which the actress sat, a short length of balsa wood in her mouth allowing for the impalement effect.) Only after pictures of the woman, naturally unavailable for a courtroom situation, were presented as evidence that she was still alive were the charges dropped. The film was instead banned under animal cruelty laws.

[while filming a burning hut full of terrified natives] It’s beautiful!

Alan Yates

Thanks to the deregulated home video market, an uncut version of Cannibal Holocaust still made it into living rooms across Europe and beyond for years after its initial release. In 1981, direct to video releases flew under the radar of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), who at that time were only responsible for censoring theatrical releases. In an era defined by miners strikes and the dismantling of worker unions, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took extreme and callous measures in her quest for an economy built on deregulation and private capital, demonising the working classes while inflicting a police state mentality that saw 20,000 injured or hospitalised, 13,000 arrested, 200 imprisoned, and two killed on picket lines across the country. With the aid of a mostly complicit media and hard-line conservative and censorship crusader Mary Whitehouse, who would coin the term ‘Video Nasties’, leading to the video recordings act of 1984 and a list of 72 banned movies that included Cannibal Holocaust, Thatcher was able to champion a ‘return to Victorian Values’ at a time of heartless autocracy and civil unrest, the era-defining ‘Battle of Orgreave’ described by BBC journalist Alastair Stewart as “a defining and ghastly moment” that “changed, forever, the conduct of industrial relations and how this country functions as an economy and as a democracy”. It wasn’t until 2001 that Cannibal Holocaust was formally submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for re-release. An incredible twelve minutes were cut from the eventual 2002 release.

In a 2011 interview with the BBC prior to his death, Deodato would discuss the furore surrounding what remains his most controversial movie. “All debates on cinema are good for the artform,” he would say. “The most important aspect of [Cannibal Holocaust] was the original use of reportage style. The special effects aimed to make people believe what they were seeing was real. I’ve always loved realism since my time working with the maestro [Italian film director] Roberto Rossellini… I think the cuts of the new edition are right. If I had the chance to go back in time, I’d have avoided the animal killings. I paid a high price for that, such as losing the pleasure of introducing Cannibal Holocaust to the UK public.”

Beyond a thirst for international infamy, there are times when you have to question why Cannibal Holocaust was made at all, and for whom? The obvious answer is by Deodato, for Deodato, which is why he made for such a polarising figure, even earning the moniker “Monsieur Cannibal” in France. Characterised as a rotten purveyor of filth by many, he would inevitably acquire a cult following in horror circles by hardcore audiences who thrive on depravity and respect the force of Deodato’s conviction, but also on the blurred conceptual margins that propel Cannibal Holocaust above the realms of bog-standard exploitation. Deodato does have something to say beneath the piles of steaming viscera, tackling ruthless television executives, exploitative film crews and commentaries on mass media opinion shaping, namely false representations of the ‘heroic’ West and their ‘savage’ counterparts, a bias that continues to operate in a world controlled by media moguls. The film was even inspired by Italian media coverage of Red Brigades terrorism, which Deodato believed to be staged, but it’s all rather fickle given the testimonies of various cast members and acts of cruelty that border on the sub-human.

Be that as it may, the controversy surrounding Cannibal Holocaust worked wonders for Deodato in terms of exposure. In an era of unprecedented creative violence and under the counter ‘video nasty’ taboo, a time when fabled titles were whispered with a quiet awe that threatened prosecution for both consumers and purveyors, Cannibal Holocaust stood tall for its snuff qualities and found footage innovations, becoming the catalyst for future savvy-promotion classics such as The Blair Witch Project. As well as triggering an entire sub-genre with its unprecedented quest for realism, the protracted court proceedings and cries of real-life murder will go down in the annals of horror movie folklore and beyond ― exactly where Deodato wanted to be. A job well done, for better and for worse.

Director: Ruggero Deodato
Screenplay: Gianfranco Clerici
Cinematography: Sergio D’Offizi
Editing: Vincenzo Tomassi
Music: Riz Ortolani

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